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I've never been to a circus, and all the shows and videos I've seen about them don't give off the full effect.

How does a person go about describing a place/experience that they never personally experienced before?

Is there a specific feel that a writer should get into in order to write about something so colorful and full of scents?

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    Another book that provides a behind-the-scenes look at circus life is Dean Koontz's Twilight Eyes – Henry Taylor Jan 10 '18 at 22:41
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    You could try going to one. Experiencing one is the best thing to do. Cirque de Soleil is kind of considered a circus, and it does tour a lot. – Sweet_Cherry Jan 10 '18 at 23:32
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    I would add that when trying to imagine a setting or situation you’ve never been in, go through all the senses. What would a circus smell like? (Back in the day, they smelled like a kennel from the animals) How comfortable are the seats? Does your butt hurt after an hour? What does it feel like inside you? When the trapeze artists are performing, do you get exhausted from all the adrenaline from being afraid for them? Etc. cover all the bases even if those details don’t make it into what you’re writing. – Todd Wilcox Jan 11 '18 at 2:51
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    You can inspire yourself in the works of one of the great masters of pulling the "writing stories about places you've never been to" - Jules Verne. Try reading "Journey to the Center of the Earth", "Michael Strogoff" or (my personal favourite) "Robur the Conqueror". – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Jan 11 '18 at 10:19
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    In that case you have freedom to make a number of things up, you'd be writing about people's reactions to seeing these "monsters" if it is a shock, thriller type story. Real life accuracy would likely be less important. Now if you're going for a persuasion type story showing how badly animals are being treated in real life (want the audience to rethink paying such companies) you may want to be more accurate if you're going for a documentary. – BugFolk Jan 11 '18 at 23:37
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Your question reminds me of an article I once read by the novelist Isaac Asimov. He said that his first attempt at writing fiction was about people living in a small town, and that others told him this was a bad idea because he had to that point never been outside New York City. But, he said, he went on to write many science fiction novels about life on other planets, and he'd never been to other planets either.

So CAN you write about places you've never been or things you've never done? Sure. But it's tricky. There are a million details that you might get wrong and that you might not even think of.

Sure, some things you might just get away with. Even if readers realize they're wrong, they'll accept them for the sake of the story. Like if you say that a character is standing on the corner of Fourth Street and Elm in Foobarville and he sees a startling headline on a newspaper in the kiosk there, someone who has been to Foobarville might know that there is no newspaper kiosk on that corner. But he'd probably gloss over it. You needed the character to see this headline to move the plot forward, so yeah, whatever.

But other mistakes are more glaring. Two examples come to mind:

  1. Okay, not a fiction story, but I recently saw an ad with a headline, I forget the exact words, but something about "people in Michigan are discovering" how this company can save them money on their cars. And they have a picture of people standing in front of a building with a sign reading "Motor Vehicle Bureau". Except ... we don't have such a thing as a "Motor Vehicle Bureau" here in Michigan. Licenses and car registrations are done at the Secretary of State office. It told me right off that the people who made this ad wanted to make it sound like it was something tailored to Michigan, but in fact they didn't know the most basic things about car ownership in Michigan.

  2. I saw a documentary about a murder that took place in Wendover, Nevada. It caught my attention because my daughter lives in Wendover, Nevada and I have been there many times. They had some re-enactments of events leading up to the murder, including one that they said was in the parking lot of the high school. And you can see the thick forest all around the parking lot. Except that Wendover is in the middle of a desert; there are about ten trees in the entire town. That scene was not filmed anywhere near Wendover. I found it very distracting.

It's pretty hard to find a circus in America today. Ringling Brothers, probably the most famous, just went out of business in 2017. My brother used to work for Clyde Beatty Cole Brothers circus, which held out for a long time but apparently went under in 2016, according to something I just found on the Internet. Apparently there are still some out there: https://wanderwisdom.com/misc/Touring-circuses-In-the-United-States-and-Beyond I don't know if circuses are still thriving in other parts of the world.

If you can't attend an actual circus, at least try to find books by or about circus people.

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    Oh my God, not only did you answer my question, but you made me think about the plot of my story and how it really is just all made up. My villain lives on another planet and I've hardly been out of the country. My story takes place in a state in which I live nowhere near, and the only thing I have to describe it, are google images. Thank you so so so much! – Aspen the Artist and Author Jan 10 '18 at 20:44
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    And don't assume anything is too obscure. I once read a science-fiction story set in the wilderness of a remote corner of Idaho -- right in the middle of an area I've hiked extensively. It was clear the author was working from a topographic map rather than an actual visit, because I could nail down where the action was taking place to within about a quarter-mile, and the only thing matching reality was the shape of the mountains. (In reality, the story would have ended ten pages in, with the main characters drowning as they crossed a river in full spring flood.) – Mark Jan 11 '18 at 0:24
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    I think the executive summary version of this is that using a location or event you are unfamiliar with but readers may be familiar with opens up the door for cognitive dissonance. Minor dissonance can be worked through for the sake of enjoying the story, but major dissonance distracts the reader. – Cort Ammon Jan 11 '18 at 0:37
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    @CortAmmon So maybe I'm more cut out to be a novelist than a short story writer. :-) – Jay Jan 11 '18 at 16:07
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    ... Though it occurs to me that something like the brand of bungee cord is an excellent example: A typical visitor to a circus would surely have no idea. But to someone who has worked in a circus, he might well say, "What?! The circus uses Rapide model 9831 bungee cords?! But they were all recalled after that terrible accident in 2015. Is this circus run by idiots who have no regard for elementary safety?" etc. – Jay Jan 11 '18 at 16:16
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Experience it yourself

This is one of the things that you should be able to experience yourself. Living the moment will give you so much more information than any book, video, picture, or other description of any kind could ever could.

Be careful when writing about things you don't know anything about

Chances are you will severly misjudge something. You might think that's not a big deal with a circus, but if you are planning to describe a normal circus in great detail there are many opportunities to get something wrong.

If you can't experience it yourself try to get as much information as possible

Try to read books that focus on the topic and see how they describe it. Ask a friend for his experience. Go through the boring, long articles on the internet that describe everything far too detailed to be a little light reading and see what sticks. Watch YouTube videos all day long. Go to Google pictures and type "circus" or "circus popcorn" or "circus elephant" or certain animals or anything that you think might be interesting. Listen to Podcasts that have something to do with the topic. Read short stories and Blog articles.

Especially the experience from other people is important. Ask your friends and family if this is an important part of what you are writing. You will get a few opinions and can then judge what parts seem to be most important. The closer to your target audience your interview partners are the better.

  • I'd add: look for videos! Ideally with original sound. There are tons of videos online these days; I'm sure there are plenty of ones from circuses if you look around a little. – a CVn Jan 10 '18 at 19:21
  • @MichaelKjörling The author stated that it didn't help in his question "and all the shows and videos I've seen about them don't give off the full effect" – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Jan 10 '18 at 19:22
  • yeah, audio and visual don't really help prod my imagination. – Aspen the Artist and Author Jan 10 '18 at 19:23
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    @Secespitus Good point, though I still wouldn't dismiss videos as a component of getting as much information as possible. – a CVn Jan 10 '18 at 19:28
  • @MichaelKjörling For the sake of making this answer useful for a wider audience I added videos and a few other things. – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Jan 10 '18 at 19:31
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Find good Beta Readers

It would be lovely if you had the time to become an expert in all the various different facets of life which are involved in your story. But you don't. Nobody has time for that, and you have a story to write. So do as much research as you can, fill in the blanks as best as possible, and then have people who are experts read your story and identify the things that jar them out of it.

In this case that means finding people who have attended circuses. It would be even better if you could find someone who works for a circus, but that's probably significantly harder, so take what you can get.

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There are many things about a circus that you cannot experience without being there. Maybe you have friends who have been to a circus that you can talk to?

I was recently at a small circus in Kiev during a short visit there. It wasn't just the acrobats or clowns or the animals that were important. The audience reaction was a factor. There was a smell from the animals, even though most of the animals were dogs, cats, or seals. There was a smell from the people. The sounds of the players as they ran to get to their positions.

All of those things either added or distracted from the main purpose of seeing the circus, but they were all something that a character would experience. And don't underestimate the smell. I still remember the smells from a large circus I saw when I was a kid.

With a larger circus, you also get sawdust on the ground and ropes that hold the tents up that can be tripped over. And the refreshments. And the sounds of the barkers who are calling the visitors to their tents.

A circus is a multi-sensory experience and I think that you'll write about it better if you experience one. If not, read a lot about them and watch a lot of videos and try to talk to people who have been to one.

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This is a really good Question.

How would one write about a place they have never been to?

With a circus, one can always wait for the circus to come to town, pay $30 and experience it for real.

But other things aren't so easy.

If you have never been to the trading pit of wall street, how would you write a scene set on the trading floor? I guess the easy answer is, put that same scene else where.

But what if I have a scene set in Mumbai, a real place, full of real people, well known to many tens and tens of millions of people? And what if my story requires the scene to happen in that city or in India. what if it is a street scene. Should we just move it indoors to a generic office tower?

I don't have an answer.

I am a world traveler. And I have great friends from many cultures. What I do is I research using google maps, google street view, youtube, documentaries, etc. And then based on that research, I project what I know of the closest neighbor/culture to the exotic locale.

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If you have any sort of way to ask a bunch of people about their experiences and impressions of circuses, you might get a lot of useful answers.

I remember a circus used to visit Cape May, New Jersey, each summer. I remember one time wandering through the menagerie and watching a few rather small elephants eating. Elephants have to eat almost constantly. I'm sure that each of the elephants would have had a chain around an ankle attached to a stake in the ground.

I don't remember what I was thinking about at the time. But another childhood experience I had was going to some party at a place in the country. There was sheep with a chain around its neck attached to a stake in the ground and the sheep was probably used as a living lawn mower.

The sheep pulled on the chain and pulled it off the stake or pulled the stake out of the ground. My sister and I ran to the man of the house and told him and he went and pulled on the chain to pull the sheep back where it belonged. And I was surprised by what a struggle it was for the man to pull the sheep.

So I suppose that a child like me, watching the circus elephants placidly eating, could have remembered a sheep that got loose and imaged how much stronger the elephants were than the sheep, and thought that if the circus elephants wanted to they could probably pull up their stakes with ease and wander off.

I think that many people constantly compare present situations with past ones.

For example, in a circus, a customer could remember being scratched by a kitten and compare the claws of the big cats to those of the kitten.

Or they could wonder how similar the personalities of the big cats are to those of house cats they knew.

Or they could compare their own klutziness to the skills of the acrobats.

And if people go to the circus together with friends and family, they might discuss such things.

And if your story involves mistreated circus animals, the characters might wonder how content they are and if they might try to escape today and how easy would it be for them.

And maybe if you ask a hundred people or so for their memories of the circus you can get enough information for your story.

And there are no doubt many websites about circuses.

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